Contributions to teaching profession - Joe Fatheree (US)

Turning to hip hop music and drones

Mr Fatheree has experimented with different approaches over the course of his long career to get students excited about learning.
Mr Fatheree has experimented with different approaches over the course of his long career to get students excited about learning.PHOTO: JOE FATHEREE

American high school teacher Joe Fatheree started his teaching career more than 25 years ago, and soon discovered that his students did not respond well to the methods he had learnt when he was training to be an educator.

The 51-year-old teacher at Effingham High School in Illinois began experimenting with various teaching approaches and eventually turned to, among other things, hip hop music and technology such as drones to get students excited about learning.

"Many of the students in my class at that time... saw little value in their education," he said. "School was something they endured instead of embraced."

Mr Fatheree, one of the 10 finalists for this year's Global Teacher Prize, is known in the United States for his unconventional style of teaching and was once Illinois' Teacher of the Year.

One of the first teaching projects he embarked on early in his career used hip hop music to capture his students' attention and help them discover literature. Students had struggled to connect with the authors of classic literature texts as they could not see how the works were relevant to them.

"I am constantly searching for new ways to connect the curriculum to the real world in order to engage my students in the learning process," he said.

"I saw the rise of hip hop as a way of doing just that. Early hip hop artists were master poets and storytellers who spoke out on a wide array of different social issues."

The genre of music, according to Mr Fatheree, served as a bridge that enabled him to discuss literature with the students. Overnight, the interest in his classes grew and, subsequently, academic achievement improved.

Now, his students use a range of innovative approaches to reinforce their learning. For instance, they produce music and short films covering topics from poverty to bullying. Students also use the latest technology, such as 3D printing, and video games like Minecraft in their learning.

Mr Fatheree said that in addition to being content specialists, teachers now have to adapt their lesson plans to the real world to help students develop skills needed in future, such as innovation.

However, he pointed out that in the last few years, the American education system has placed heavy emphasis on testing.

"The nation's obsession with testing is counter-intuitive to its desire to provide students with an education based on innovation and creativity," he added. "For society to flourish, great teachers are a must."

While Mr Fatheree did not bag the teaching prize, he was humbled by the outpouring of attention and respect that teachers were given as a result of the event.

"I've always seen teaching as an opportunity to help shape the future," he said. "Teachers have the privilege of working with some of the world's brightest and creative minds on a daily basis.

"I can't think of another job that I would rather do."

Calvin Yang

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 28, 2016, with the headline 'Turning to hip hop music and drones'. Print Edition | Subscribe